Working Equitation: Give Your Dressage a Purpose

Have you heard of Working Equitation?

Google working equitation. Your screen will fill up with beautiful Iberian breeds probably going over different kinds of obstacles. Youtube it. You’ll  likely find videos from Pedro Torres or the beautiful palomino Trigo ridden by Vasco Mira Godinho. As seen in the header picture for this post.

Facebook sprinkles images of working equitation throughout my feed. Over the last couple of years, it has begun to spread among the horse crowd in Wisconsin and Illinois as its popularity grew. Even crossing over among both Western and English riders.

Then last year as I began to look for alternatives to strict traditional dressage, working equitation began to whisper it’s way through my mind. So when I saw a Horseless Introduction to Working Equitation Clinic being offered at KarMik Acres  I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the sport.

To begin, auditors gathered to learn from Karen and Mike Boso at their farm. I was impressed that among our primary disciplines we accounted for gaited, dressage, eventing, hunter jumpers, ranch riding, reining, competitive trail, and simple saddle horses. If you’ve been around the equestrian world long, you know how anomalous it is for so many different types of riders to gather at the same place with interest in the same thing.

We started the morning talking about the basics of working equitation. Working Equitation is defined as:

“A discipline created with the objective of enhancing the equestrian techniques in countries whose riders use horses in different aspects of ‘fieldwork’ or ‘in the field’.”

In the field means working cattle from traditional Iberian breeds such as PRE’s, Lusitanos, and Andalusians.

Working Equitation is broken down into levels. Starting with Introductory and then moving on to Novice A/B, Intermediate A/B, Advanced, and Masters. Each level has different requirements in dressage tests and required gaits for the other phases.

Then we learned that three phases make up each level. Excluding introductory, where only Dressage and Ease of Handling are required. In rare cases, there may also be a fourth phase. Ranch phase requires you to work cattle with a team. You can imagine why hosts don’t always offer this option.

Phase 1: Dressage

The first and most familiar phase to a majority of riders is dressage. Each of the tests is designed to show the horse and rider’s skills and confirm that they are able to move on to the next phase, Ease of Handling. For a fabulous article about what makes WE dressage different from traditional, western, and cowboy dressage please take a look at this article from Working Equitation Today.

Phase 2: Ease of Handling

I came to think of Ease of Handling like a Hunter round, where everything should be beautiful with smooth and flowing lines…but with obstacles. Similar to trail, riders perform each obstacle in a specific order. The judge decides how well the pairing executes their task according to their judging criteria. Designers set the course up in a pattern and all of the obstacles must be performed with the same hand. So if the rider opens a gate with their left hand they must also ring the bell with their left hand, switch a cup with their left hand, and handle the earthenware jar with their left hand. Or else, you’re out.

Another tricky technical point that is up to the judge at the show is whether or not they allow you to ‘break the plane’ of an obstacle that you have not already ridden. Basically, you cannot cut through an obstacle that you have not already completed. Karen advised us to always check with the judge during the course walk/introduction whether or not that rule was in place.

Karen gave us a course map and told us to do a walk through after introducing us to each obstacle. Hunters, jumpers,  and eventers, sound familiar to you?

Phase 3: Speed

Beginning at the Novice levels, riders will also complete a speed phase which is also an obstacle based phase. You’re judged only on speed. There are also some unique technicalities that can save you some time and distance in the speed round, specifically with the double slalom and bridge.

What’s on Course

Now, what obstacles might you encounter on a working equitation course?

There are the ‘traditional’ trail obstacles like a gate and bridge, sidepass poles, pole bending/single slalom, and a barrel figure eight.

Then there are the unique obstacles:

Earthenware Jug- You must ride up to a stand with a pitcher on it, stop your horse, raise the pitcher above your head and set it back down.

Livestock Pen- a 20-foot wide circular obstacle that you have to ride through going in both directions

Drums- barrels set up in a barrel racing pattern, but spaced 13 feet apart. Plus, there is a unique way of rounding each one, barrel racers beware! Karen said that people frequently go wrong on the pattern thinking that it’s a typical barrel cloverleaf.

Double Slalom- like the single slalom but with a minimum of 7 poles divided into two lines

Bell Chute- Ride into a chute, ring the bell, and back out.

Garrocha Pole and Bull- get the garrocha pole, lance the ring, and get the pole and ring in a final barrel.

In the speed phase, the course may or may not be the same as the ease of handling phase. The only obstacle you won’t see in speed is the earthenware jug. Everything else is fair game.

As in the hunter/jumper world, a course designer can do virtually anything they want. Too many variations on the style of these obstacles and the number of obstacles presented to be able to say for sure what a rider will see.


Wrapping Things Up

Overall, the emphasis on the development of the horse and riders relationship, harmony, and communication was music to my ears.  Hearing this emphasized by a judge, repeatedly, throughout the day was particularly appealing. Coming from a discipline seemingly judged more on flash than substance, this made me ecstatic. 

Working equitation’s required skills give the rider a meaning for why we do dressage. Is there really a purpose for voltes? Why do we need to be able to do flying lead changes every 15 feet? How come you need to have control over our horse while backing? The answers all come from the foundations, in strict dressage from warfare, and from working equitation from working cattle.

Already I have begun to incorporate bits and pieces of the obstacle training into my dressage riding. My horses seem to appreciate a break from the monotony of dressage dressage dressage, and I’m having fun trying new things.

Plus, I’ve set a loose goal to try my first working equitation show in October, wish me luck!